Maria Taylor will be putting in a lot of work on Christmas, which just a few years ago she never would have imagined.
“This is just my second Christmas working and it’s funny because I’m used to working Thanksgiving because of college football and I used to be like, ‘Oh, I’ll never work on Christmas. That’s the one holiday I’ll have,'” she says. “I do the College Football Playoff which is always on New Year’s Day and it’s like, 'I’ll always have [Christmas],' but that’s gone. That’s never coming back to you again.”
If you’ve been paying attention, then you know the 33-year-old ESPN anchor/reporter's come-up has been swift since she joined the Worldwide Leader in Sports in 2012. The second-year host of NBA Countdown is gladly gearing up for 13 hours of television duty when the ESPN family of networks broadcasts all five games scheduled for Christmas, even though she'll miss spending time with her family back in Georgia. Taylor's cool clocking in when everyone else is home relaxing because she says working alongside cohorts Jalen Rose, Adrian Wojnarowski, Jay Williams, and Paul Pierce often feels like an awesome get-together rather than an obligation.
“It turns into a big watch party with some television sprinkled into it,” says Taylor.
We caught up with the ESPN star who, of course, still contributes to College GameDay and will report from the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Day, to talk about the marathon ahead of her on the NBA’s most important day of the regular-season, what it's really like behind-the-scenes at Countdown, how the Jets screwed up the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes, and the time Ric Flair gifted her a signed WWE belt.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
How are you preparing for 13 hours of studio work on Christmas?
Yes, it is a marathon and not a sprint and you have to remember that. But the great thing about what we have the opportunity to do is we have 30-minute shows and give great bursts of energy and halftimes are always kind of the same. But really it reminds me of when the bubble first started and we were playing those seeding games. Jalen and I were in the studio from the very first tip-off to the last. It’s going to be similar to that. We’re going to be in the studio hanging out, we turn on all the monitors so we have every single angle.
So take me behind the curtains a little bit and tell me what it’s like hanging out with the Countdown crew? Who’s the best jokester? What’s the vibe like? What are the viewers missing that you get to experience?
It’s hilarious. The big conversation every week is what are we having for dinner. It’s usually—I’m not even kidding—Chinese food every time, because Jalen loves Chinese food. Well, this year we’re doing it from Bristol so we don’t know what’s going to happen. We might have to use the ESPN cafeteria. I don’t know if they’re going to have Chinese food for us so we’re going to have to deal with that. Jalen usually brings in food from home—like grilled ribs and lobster tails and shrimp and that was always awesome. Our producers there are already taking our orders.
Paul [Pierce] is hilarious, like he’s always joking about what he remembers when he was traveling and his favorite towns to go to. Jalen’s kind of the same way. And at some point our researcher Matt Williams will ask us, “So what do you guys actually want to talk about at halftime?” Then we’ll stop for two minutes, actually do a little work, and then jump right back into it.
Even though you have all those unique personalities in the greenroom, does anyone dominate?
It’s definitely Paul and Jalen. And Paul won’t be there because of travel restrictions, but those two are the funniest, the biggest jokesters. Jalen sits on a highchair, always. Paul is always on some sofa laying kickback and it’s just like you’re in a barbershop or someone’s living room.
If you weren’t pulling a triple-shift on Christmas, what would you be doing?
I would be home in Atlanta. Usually I’m with my family. My brother has two young kids. My mom’s house is decked out. I don’t know how many black Santas she has—there’s gotta be 50 of them. Christmas tree, giving presents, Secret Santa, playing White Elephant, all of that on Christmas day. It’s such a blessing.
But it’s prestigious to be on-air during Christmas. This is the biggest regular-season day on the NBA calendar. And this year you guys will kind of be companions to those who can’t be with their family.
We talk about it, too. Especially this year when maybe less people are traveling from home-to-home, people are really going to be sitting down and watching these NBA games and we’re what is on and get to kind of host it and be the welcome party, like welcome to our home. This is our living room for the day. That’s the cool part about it and the way we’ve been talking it up. We’re not frontline workers by any means, but we value the ability to provide entertainment, to provide a little bit of distraction and a little bit of fun and color to a day that’s already supposed to be special but has been affected so much by COVID. This should feel like the one thing that is a constant.
It’s a packed slate. Five great games. What is the best game on Christmas?
It’s definitely Lakers and Dallas. And I think it’s just because of the star-studded caliber [of it]. You get the defending champs, you get LeBron [James], you get AD [Anthony Davis], you get Luka [Doncic]—he finished fourth in MVP voting and people are picking him to win MVP this year—and it’s our primetime game. Those are the great storylines.
What’s an under the radar storyline entering the season that deserves more attention?
The biggest thing for me is just—it’s been a year of a lot of movement and so I think those are the stories people gravitate toward. You gravitate toward where’s [James] Harden going to be. You gravitate towards, ok, we finally get to see KD [Kevin Durant] or how will Russ [Westbrook] work out with [Bradley] Beal and all those stories. I really think from top to bottom, we have this star power that makes us want to tune into a Memphis Grizzlies game because we know Ja Morant is there. Or the New Orleans Pelicans because young stars are there. There’s so many teams that have this franchise player that are in different markets that, as a whole, the league is better. We got the top-end story—LeBron in LA. That’s dope. We’ve got KD and Kyrie [Irving] in New York. But the Suns went on an 8-0 run in the bubble and they’ve got Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker, they’re going to be good. And Miami made this huge leap. The games maybe a few seasons ago we would completely write off now there’s intrigue. There’s intrigue up and down the league. There’s never a day where you’re like, “I really don’t care.” Because it’s like, Imma tune in and there’s going to be a star there.
We’ll see you when the College Football Playoff coverage when it rolls around. Did the committee get it right or wrong?
[Laughs.] Sheesh, I’m going to be on the Ohio State sideline. I can’t say anything.
Fair enough. How much did the Jets screw up by winning last weekend and, as of right now, likely losing out on the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes?
Man, I’m a Falcons fan so all season long I’ve been like, “Well, if we continue to be trash and not win games and get Trevor Lawrence then that would be dope since he’s from Georgia.” The Jets, that’s what they do. Anytime there’s glimmers of hope, that’s what’s going to happen if you’re a Jets fan. I think Jets fans have accepted that. It doesn’t hurt their hearts, it doesn’t hurt their souls. It just is what it is. But Trevor Lawrence is the real deal. For real, for real. And, I think he’s going to come in and barring any injuries he’s going to be a franchise quarterback for whatever team he lands at and is going to make an immediate impact.
We had you No. 3 in our Best Sports Media Bookshelves rankings back in April. I believe you said you deserved to be No. 1. Have you made any additions to the bookshelf?
No, I haven’t. I was waiting for a little bit of feedback. I didn’t know if I needed a candle. A book. Who was No. 1?
From @AdamSchefter to @wojespn to @MariaTaylor to @RapSheet to @MinaKimes.— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) April 10, 2020
Schefter called out Woj too 👀. “I always wanted to expose what a fraud Woj is."
Ranking the Best Sports Media Bookshelves: https://t.co/o7aNe2yxda pic.twitter.com/fVfGS5L72A
I had Adam Schefter No. 1 because he was the OG of doing TV hits in front of his bookshelf. I had Jeff Darlington behind him because he had the original Nintendo on display. And then I gave you No. 3 because you had that WWE belt that was atypical.
So you know, Ric Flair gave that to me at a Georgia College GameDay and it’s signed by him. It’s even better than just the story of having a WWE belt. Ric Flair has signed that and we’re friends now.
So real quick, let’s hear the backstory about how Ric Flair gave you the belt.
He’s a huge Georgia fan. He came to a shooting with me, David Pollack, two Georgia football players, and we had Quavo from Migos come over. And we were just doing tricks and doing GameDay stuff, and [Flair] was just hanging out with us and was like, “Oh, I’m going to bring you guys something tomorrow.” So Saturday morning, he knew he was going to be on our Countdown to GameDay Twitter show. He busts out these huge WWE belts that he had signed for me and David and we were the only two that got them. And he’s just hilarious and funny so it was fun meeting him and getting to know him.
And finally, tell me about The Winning Edge Leadership Academy that you helped co-found in 2015 and how much it’s meant to you get it off the ground.
Man, I appreciate that. So The Winning Edge Leadership Academy is all about helping minorities get into sports. As we all know, Black women and men you can find them on the basketball court, the football field, but as you go to front offices and coaching staffs and on up the ranks, you just see there’s a shift in diversity. There isn’t any. So I’m always on college campuses and there’s all these minority kids coming up to me like, “How do I get into it? I really want to do this. I really want to be an AD. But I can’t find the opportunity.” Then I’m running into all of these people who work in administrations like, “Yeah, we want to diversify.”
That’s kind of how it all started. It’s realizing I’m connected to both of these things. I was connected to the talent pool and I was connected to the administration people who are decision makers. We’ve had at the end of every year—we weren’t able to do it this year because of COVID—these retreats and we cater to student-athletes. We bring them in for four days, teach them how to build their resumes, we have dinners with them. We’ve had several people go onto either internships or it’s turned into jobs for them. So we’ve got people working at Miami, at TCU, we’ve gotten students jobs at Tennessee. The idea just being, once you get your foot in the door hopefully you can grow that into something else. At the end of the day a lot of these kids are first generation graduates, their parents aren’t funding anything for them, so they can’t take an internship for free or just go travel to New York. But we’ll pay for that. We’ll help you for that and prepare you for that. And that’s what gets me going. That’s what allowed me to continue to travel and do college football and add in NBA. I’m like I can’t give up college because I feel like I have more impact there. It matters, you know what I mean.